Sunday Commentary II: Is the GATE Program In Need of Change?

The Board listens to public comment on Thursday
The Board listens to public comment on Thursday

While I have been very concerned about the process in which the school board has addressed the GATE/AIM program, I have not taken a position overall on the GATE program. Frankly, I am not an expert here, and the questions seem many, with the issues complex.

The message that seemed to be delivered on Thursday night was that the system is going to change. And I think this gets to the core – why are we changing the GATE/AIM program? Is it not working?

That is where things get tricky. There a bunch of different things we need to be looking at just to ask that simple question.

UC Davis Researcher Scott Carrell led a team of researchers to address the question, “How Does the AIM Program Affect Student Outcomes in the Davis Joint Unified School District?”

They conclude among other things, “Identification into the program has been both inconsistent and variable over time. The number of students who have qualified for AIM through universal testing has decreased while the number of students who have qualified through private testing and retesting has increased.”

There has been a drop, they found, in the average and minimum OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test) scores and “[t]hese changes have resulted in a lack of transparency about who is truly ‘fit’ for the program.”

One key thing that the district needs to figure out is whether GATE/AIM is to be an honors program or a program for gifted students who are not having their needs met otherwise. Answering this question is at the core of the problem here.

The report continues, “We also find no evidence that the program positively affects achievement scores of participating students and no evidence that the program negatively affects nonparticipating students.”

The authors argue, “This ‘no benefit, no harm’ finding should be considered within the context of the program’s cost: the DJUSD spends considerable resources on universal testing and retesting (as do private citizens for additional testing) and given the financial costs and capacity constraints associated with this program, we should expect these costs to be balanced by some measurable benefit.”

On the other hand, advocates of the program would counter that, in actuality, the GATE program costs less than $20 per student of additional funding to run. So perhaps the resource issue is overstated and can be streamlined fairly easily.

For any student, the statistical analysis is somewhat fuzzy. It is susceptible to using the correct statistical model to estimate the relationship between AIM and performance, and at least one commenter on Thursday questioned the regression model used to create the “no statistically significant” effect.

But there are all sorts of problems that the researchers much grapple with here. As they acknowledge, “Comparing the average outcomes of students in AIM self-contained classrooms with students not in AIM self-contained classrooms does not provide a good estimate of the causal effect of AIM.”

The researchers here can also not implement a controlled experiment “to disentangle the actual effect of a program from the effect of different types of individuals choosing to participate or not participate in a program.”

They ultimately settle on a regression discontinuity research design: “However, because of how students qualify for AIM in the DJUSD, certain parts of the qualification process are effectively random. It is this randomization that we exploit to estimate the effect of the AIM program on students in the program. This approach is called a regression discontinuity research design (RDD).”

As a former social scientist, I can say that, during my research, we often had to get creative in designing ways to analyze data for which there were not good controls. However, it is one thing to advance an understanding of a field using such methods – it is another thing to use a “quasi-experimental method” as an instrument of public policy.

Here they attempt to compare those students who just miss the threshold with those who just make the threshold.

In the end they find, “Students just to the right of the qualification threshold score, on average, 3 points higher on their ELA CST [English-language Arts California Standards Tests] and 6 points lower on their math CST than students just to the left of the qualification threshold. These effects are small and statistically indistinguishable from zero. As such, there is no evidence that the AIM program has an effect on students in the AIM program.”

But there are problems with this approach. First of all, should we expect GATE/AIM to have a profound effect on measurable achievement? Second, should it be immediate? Third, couldn’t these results suggest that the program is working rather than not working?

The first problem here is that you have the assumption that the OLSAT scores will be improved by the program. Or to put it another way, what is the evidence that the OLSAT is enough of a finely-tuned measurement device to base our assessment of the GATE program’s success or failure?

Along with that is the question as to whether we should expect to see marked improvement within a given year.

Finally, there is the problem that in the ideal world, where you are identifying kids who are good fits for the GATE/AIM program, they should be helped by that program. On the other hand, kids who are not GATE/AIM program qualifiers should better fit in their traditional classes.

If that is not happening, if GATE simply is a better program that would benefit all students, then we need to incorporate the program for all students.

And that is the whole problem I have with this entire debate. Some are arguing that we are over-identifying GATE/AIM students as though the status itself were some sort of prize rather than a program meant to help those who need it.

As such, I think the entire premise of the study is very flawed. The real question we should be asking is does the AIM program help those who enroll in it? Who does it help? Who is better helped by a more traditional program?

After all, if 75 percent of Davis students are helped by going to the GATE program, the question should be: why aren’t we doing it for 75 percent of the students?

When I listen to Frank Fox, a retired educator, I find he makes a lot of sense: “We live in 2015, why aren’t we now working on an individual plan for each and every kid that’s in the district?” Are there ways for us to create individual programs for each and every student? Should [that] be the goal?

On other hand, I hear comments about things like “segregation” and “bullying,” and I have to question those terms. As several parents put it, GATE has become some sort of a status symbol where the GATE-identified students use it against the non-GATE identified students.

I don’t see that as a problem with the GATE program. That is typical behavior for children who will use differences as a means to bully other students ,often as a crutch for their own insecurities.

The objection to me is that we are again using GATE/AIM as a status symbol – part of that stems from the name “gifted and talented education.”

Against that backdrop are the calls for differentiated instruction.

As I read the California Department of Education’s guidelines on differentiated instruction, it notes that cognitive research results “suggest that a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom teaching is ineffective for most students and even harmful for some.”

The principles that point clearly to the need for differentiated instruction are listed as follows:

  1. Need for emotional safety. Learning environments must feel emotionally safe to students for the most effective learning to take place.
  2. Need for appropriate challenges. Students require appropriate levels of challenge. When students are confronted with content and performance standards well beyond their level of readiness, intense stress frequently results… A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching produces lessons pitched at a single-challenge level, virtually ensuring that many students will be overchallenged or underchallenged. Neither group will learn effectively. Research supports the conviction that all students should strive to meet the same content and performance standards, although many will do so at different levels of acceptable proficiency.
  1. Need for self-constructed meaning. Students need opportunities to develop their own meaning as new knowledge and skills are encountered. They have different learning styles, process ideas and concepts differently, have varied backgrounds and experiences, and express themselves differently. All must be helped to assimilate new knowledge and skills within the framework of prior personal experiences.

The real question, then, isn’t whether we have differentiated instruction, but how we structure it. Those opposing the self-contained GATE program seem to believe that students would benefit most from differentiated instruction within a single classroom.

But I recall someone from my youth – a person very bright and gifted but not a high achiever, largely because the in-classroom material was non-challenging and uninteresting. The person was quickly ostracized for being different and sought emotional safety by playing down to the masses rather than excelling. While this individual eventually would overcome these challenges, much of public schooling was a waste of time for this person.

These are not simple issues and, while the system appears to be working in some respects, it becomes very clear that testing and identification needs to be improved. If students who would benefit from AIM are excluded from AIM, then I think we need to re-think what AIM should be.

On the other hand, it is very clear to me that there is a class of students who would benefit from being able to progress at their own pace and in the safety of a self-contained program. The challenge for the district is to properly identify those students and make sure that the program serve the needs of all.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. wdf1

    For me what is glaring is the mismatch in AIM identification vs. AIM/GATE participation.  Alicia Silvia’s public comments during Thursday’s meeting highlight an example of how this works its way into the discussion.  At about 1:24:00 into the meeting she stated how the Davis AIM/GATE program is more inclusive than any other program in Davis, including Spanish Immersion at Chavez Elementary.  If one refers to AIM/GATE identification then yes, it matches closely to demographic percentages in the student population as a whole, and that seems like a great thing.  Trustee Sunder made the same case in this op-ed to the Enterprise two years ago.

    AIM/GATE participation is a different matter.  Data from 2011, about the same timeframe as Sunder’s cited data on AIM/GATE identification, shows that 4.2% of Hispanic/Latino students participate in AIM/GATE, where as this population makes up about 15% of the district (source).  Many other districts do a much better job of identifying and engaging Hispanic/Latino students into their GATE programs.  This isn’t a newfound problem, but there has been frustrating slowness to acknowledge this phenomenon openly and to address it.

  2. hpierce

    Seems to be an irony… there are those who would wish (and ACT, as I do) that society and our institutions are “color-blind”, yet many who have to point out the “color” of  individuals  to either prove or disprove ‘progress’ in that area.  Think that would be frustrating to Dr. King, and others.  Maybe we have to go thru a transitional period.  Perhaps not.

    1. wdf1

      I would prefer to see data that shows participation of students in the program based on free/reduced lunch and ELL status, or a combination of the two, but I don’t  think it exists.

  3. iWitness

    wdf1, do you have figures on how many AIM identified students are still going to Chavez after having been identified for AIM?  Without knowing that, it’s hard to say believe that a school like Chavez that draws kids from all over the District wouldn’t continue to hold those kids’ interest in Chavez.   Parents don’t then have to make the decision to move them into the AIM program without four years of education in English and the kids don’t have to leave their friends to an even greater extent than is involved in going into one of four AIM sites.  Perhaps the parents are concerned that the change going into fourth grade is going to be too much for their kids.  More, the environment at Chavez is great, parent involvement is very high, it’s a great program.  For native English speakers there is an advantage to learning a second language at that age.  It’s a second pathway around the brain.  The principal is said to be unconvinced by AIM, but some parents would like to have a strand there.  Hispanic/Latino parents may also appreciate what the program is doing for their children. I haven’t witnessed that myself, though.  What I wonder now is what parents think about the prospects of GATE being there for their kids with all the talk about limiting it so much.

    2011 isn’t in the same time frame as 2013 and goes back to before the effects of the lottery on the GATE/AIM program were known.

    1. wdf1

      iWitness:  do you have figures on how many AIM identified students are still going to Chavez after having been identified for AIM?

      I don’t.  All I know is that Chavez, like other elementaries in the district without an AIM strand, loses some enrollment in grades 4, 5, and 6.

      iWitness:  the environment at Chavez is great, parent involvement is very high

      I would hope that parent involvement could be high at all sites in the district.

      iWitness:  What I wonder now is what parents think about the prospects of GATE being there for their kids with all the talk about limiting it so much.

      I would think Chavez Elementary to be an excellent site to have differentiated GATE instruction.

      iWitness:  2011 isn’t in the same time frame as 2013 and goes back to before the effects of the lottery on the GATE/AIM program were known.

      What effects do you think the lottery would have on the demography of GATE participation?


    1. wdf1

      DP:  Improve scores?  I don’t know.

      In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a fan of standardized tests being relied on as heavily as they are to make decisions on education.  That goes for GATE identification as well as CST’s (California Standards Tests, like STAR, or SBAC).

      1. Don Shor

        I don’t even know what you would compare to ‘measure’ the efficacy of GATE. I hear a lot of talk about the importance of individualized instruction. There was a heartfelt comment at the board meeting to that effect. Well, as a parent with a child who was not succeeding in the regular classroom, I was seeking the best placement, looking at all the options the district had to offer, to provide that child with the best individual instruction and practices available. A test showed a disability, special ed was indicated, and that was one tool. That revealed that the disability had kept the child out of GATE; retesting with the disability factored got the child into GATE. That was another tool. All I have, as a parent, to compare outcomes is what worked versus what I perceived the likely outcome from continuing with regular instruction and a regular classroom. There’s no way to test what might have been had we not had GATE for that child.

  4. wdf1

    I ran into this article about the Montessori program from 2 years ago.  Some sections seem to have relevance to discussions going on here.

    Anne Ternus-Bellamy, 3/15/2015, Davis Enterprise: Learning by doing, the Montessori way

    Some highlights:

    In each classroom, teachers consider themselves more guide than instructor, linking each student with the activities appropriate for his or her interest, need and developmental level. All of the students have their own unique work plans, tailored to where they are in each subject area, and they complete tasks in the order they choose.

    It is, in a sense, the ultimate form of differentiation: In a classroom of more than 30 students ranging over two or three grade levels, each child is learning at his or her own pace.

    “I like to say I have 33 IEPs in here,” laughs Palow, referring to the individualized educational programs used in special education. “Everybody is doing different things.”
    Some concerns

    A number of teachers and parents in Birch Lane’s neighborhood program see it differently, of course. Several have spoken before the school board in the past few weeks, arguing that there are inequities at Birch Lane, with Montessori classrooms having fewer low-income children and English language learners, as well as fewer special-needs kids.

    While their counterparts in the Montessori program dispute those statistics, they’ve decided to be proactive nonetheless, and are undertaking a recruiting drive that has included meeting with parents at area preschools — including those with populations of low-income children and English language learners — staffing a booth at the Farmers Market and generally getting the word out to communities that might not be familiar with the program.

    However, it is a double-edged sword, Palow said.

    The Montessori program always has struggled to meet demand, and year after year the lottery process used to fill kindergarten classes leaves children on a waiting list. For many years, the school district discouraged parents and teachers in the program from recruiting in the community so as to keep the program from growing.

    Ironically, one parent who served on the Montessori Parent Advisory Committee a few years ago actually predicted if the program was not allowed to recruit in the community, it would become exactly the kind of program its critics now claim it is.

    But under attack this year for being elitist, the program is in full recruitment mode now, including encouraging anyone curious about Montessori to attend Tuesday’s parent information night.

    There is much to appreciate about Montessori, Palow said, but chief among the program’s attributes is the preparation it gives children for their futures — to be able to work collaboratively and yet be self-directed. Beginning in kindergarten, students are given a work plan with the expectation they will complete all of their tasks — some by the end of the day, others by the end of the week.

    “My kids actually have a contract,” Palow said.

    And so successful is the program at allowing children to learn at their own pace that about 90 percent of GATE-identified children remain in the program through sixth grade, Palow and Aradhya said.

  5. Scarlet

    Hmm…  Is the district going to evaluate other special programs to see if they improve scores for all students?  For instance, does the Spanish immersion program exist because it improves scores for non Spanish immersion students, especially Hispanic low income students? Because, from the district demographic data, it is clear that many Chavez families are affluent, native English speakers, whereas the majority of Hispanic low income families are across the town in Montgomery. Was it right for the district to group the majority of the districts low income families at Montgomery?

    For years the district had things set up so that many of the few affluent students that did attend Montgomery left after the 3rd grade to attend Chavez (the Spanish Immersion strand at Montgomery ended after 3rd grade, the only 4-6 classes being at Chavez). Montgomery was the first Davis elementary school that went into “site improvement” which triggered more families with resources to switch schools. Sometimes the remaining Montgomery kids didn’t have enough parent volunteers to drive them to field trips, meanwhile those entitled kids can have parents drive them across downtown to attend Chavez to learn a second language? 

    The school district should do research to be sure Chavez is not the reason for negative impact on Hispanic student’s scores.

  6. iWitness

    Wdf1, what do you think the effects of the lottery would be on the demography of AIM participation?  At least “equal access” was the supposed basis of the threat of lawsuit that sent the previous board scurrying for the hills.  So in my comments on Spanish Immersion I was trying to figure out what could be behind the enrollment gap in GATE for identified Hispanics and Latinos.  I too would hope all schools have great parent participation, but it varies school to school and sometimes year to year.

    I don’t have any idea what to do with this latest post especially its teachers’  conclusion.  You didn’t mean both that the article is two years old and that the date of it was 2015.   I try to see the best in people until I know otherwise.  I want to believe parents are after a program they can get behind for what it does for their kids, not a social club for themselves.  Let’s keep a sense of perspective here.  Seems to me that the pro-AIM speakers were more diverse than the anti-AIM speakers at the last few Board meetings.

    1. wdf1

      iWitness:  So in my comments on Spanish Immersion I was trying to figure out what could be behind the enrollment gap in GATE for identified Hispanics and Latinos.

      You’re looking at 4.2% Latinos who are cited as being in GATE according to my source, vs. about 15% in the district population as a whole.  If you offered Spanish Immersion participation as a hypothesis to explain that differential, I would suggest that you might account for an additional 1-3%, but that would still leave a sizable gap left.

      iWitness:  Seems to me that the pro-AIM speakers were more diverse than the anti-AIM speakers at the last few Board meetings.

      A more relevant argument to consider is what kind of diversity of income and education levels exist among parents?

      Asking about representation of Latino students is really a proxy for asking that question.  Right now the data on income/education level among parents is unavailable, but statistically, Latino families in both Davis and California have a higher incidence of lower incomes and education level.

  7. zaqzaq

    One aspect of the AIM program that is popular with parents is the advanced math tract.  AIM students will have completed 7th grad math when they graduate from 6th grade allowing them to be on schedule to take calculus in high school.  In one of the schools with an AIM tract the other teachers wanted the AIM teacher to take the advanced math students into her class for math because they were not able to teach the advanced math in the regular classes.  If differentiated instruction was so easy why couldn’t these teachers cover the advanced math in the regular classrooms?  The AIM teacher declined their request because that would have given her well over 40 students.  The schools cited by PAGE for differentiated instruction have class sizes of 25 or less.  Our class sizes in Davis are over 30.  It would seem that using differentiated instruction in larger classes would be more difficult.


      1. DavisAnon

        A year ago the School Board directed the district to implement options for appropriate math differentiation for all students in grades 4, 5, and 6. Has that happened? How is the district ensuring this is occurring at all school sites? Have they made any effort to follow-up the success/failure or get input from parents, students or teachers? I have seen none of this presented at a School Board meeting.

        If they can’t implement this successfully, how are they going to effectively deal with moving a large number of AIM-identified students back into the neighborhood classrooms? This will likely mean a much larger variety of teaching approaches needed and wider spread of student abilities and learning disabilities to cope with for teachers who have had little training and support in the specifics of differentiating education for the gifted population. On top of that, they just got rid of the person most qualified to help teachers with that task – Deanne Quinn.

        This is a recipe for disaster and will only worsen the achievement gap as the focus shifts in the classroom. This will not help those in the lowest quartile in any way – a lose-lose situation for nearly all involved. It is time for the Board to stop using DJUSD students as pawns in their power games and start acting responsibly and according to the tenets of the district mission statement.

        Along with many AIM parents, I am absolutely open to changes in the AIM program, in testing and in the program itself. We should always look for opportunities for improvement, but they should be well-informed, well implemented, based on solid evidence, and improve our ability to meet the needs of each child. The Board’s current approach couldn’t be more wrong.

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